MasterChef Winner Christine Hà Dishes On Her Return To The Show - Exclusive Interview

Calling all "MasterChef" fans: If you have been following the 12th season of the FOX cooking competition, then you know all about the all-stars competing this year. "MasterChef: Back To Win" highlights your favorite cooks from past seasons, including two now-adult "MasterChef Junior" competitors. Of course, with a legendary show like this one, you need to have some legendary winners to offer their expertise alongside the judging trio of Gordon Ramsay, Aarón Sánchez, and Joe Bastianich. 

Tonight's episode features Season 3 winner Christine Hà stepping into the role of guest judge. The first-ever blind contestant on the show, Hà was an instant fan favorite and continues to be an inspiration to many. She currently runs two acclaimed Vietnamese restaurants in Houston: Xin Chao and The Blind Goat. During an exclusive interview with Tasting Table, Hà reflected on her "MasterChef" experience, including the ups and downs of her season, memorable moments she shared with Ramsay, and what it takes to take home that coveted trophy.  

The biggest challenge Hà faced on MasterChef

So, let's start with your "MasterChef" season. I would love to know, I know you're re-watching it and doing some reaction videos, which challenge during your season did you think was the most difficult?

Christine Hà: Hands down, it was the sushi tag team challenge. That was when the ones that were competing were paired up in twos and we had to replicate a sushi dish. And because I'm visually impaired, that was definitely challenging because it required me to step in and out of the kitchen and pick up where my partner Stacey [Amagrande] had left off. And so it was very flustering and it was stressful. I really loved Stacey and we did poorly in that challenge, and I felt like it was my fault. And so that was definitely the most, as I remember, the worst and hardest challenge of my season for me.

Oh, no. Well, you came out the other side, so all good now. Are there any moments that made you cringe or you just can't stop laughing at?

I think maybe sometimes in what some of the people in my season said about each other. Looking back now, it's kind of funny, but I know when you're in the competitive mode and your head's in the game, anything can kind of throw you off. And so when you hear people not getting along ... Now, I'm the kind of person that wanted to be friends with everyone on the show. Of course, there are people that I got along better with, but I'm polite to everybody. I've always been taught to treat everyone fairly. So for me, sometimes it was kind of cringey to hear how some people would talk so much mess about some of the other contestants when they weren't getting along and just kind of throwing each other under the bus. So to me, that was probably the cringiest part about listening to my season again.

What it takes to become a MasterChef winner

During your time on the show, is there any advice from a judge that stuck with you? I know your season had Joe Bastianich, Graham Elliot, and Gordon Ramsay.

I would say the slew of judges that you're going to cook for, they will have already had some of the best food in the world. So it's not really about necessarily being there to try to second guess what dish you should cook to impress them the most, because they've had really amazing food. I think it's really about cooking something that's true to your heart and to yourself and really representative of the food culture that you're from and that you understand and that you, yourself, love to eat or serve your friends and family. And I think when you do the food that you cook justice and it tells a story, that's when you tend to perform the best in the kitchen. And I speak from personal experience.

Do you have any tips or special techniques that you used throughout the competition for future "MasterChef" contestants?

I would say try to know a little about everything because you never know what challenge is going to be thrown your way, regardless. It could be a certain ingredient, it could be a cuisine, or a certain technique that maybe you're not familiar with, or baking. So I would say try to learn a little bit about everything that you can. And I think that's really how you can best be prepared because you really don't know what sort of challenges are going to come up in your season or that particular day.

The best advice Gordon Ramsay gave Hà and the inspiration behind her tattoo

What is the most memorable experience that you have had with Gordon Ramsay that you would be willing to share?

Yeah, I think it was probably from the episode where I baked the apple pie and I thought that I performed at the bottom of the group that challenge. But instead, Gordon just gave me a piece of advice that I take with me to this day. And what he told me was that I should start believing in myself and to be bold. And that's really something that helped me boost my self-confidence then and from that point on, just trusting my instincts more when it comes to things that I do in the kitchen. And I think that's actually a piece of advice that any home cook or any person can take with them throughout life. And so that would be also the same piece of advice that I would give all of the contestants this season.

So this was a few years ago, I saw on your YouTube channel that you got a "MasterChef" inspired tattoo. At the time, were there any notable reactions from fans or even the judges about it?

You get the whole gamut of people reacting to like, "Oh, why would you get a tattoo?" Most people though thought it was really neat because I think many people do get tattoos to commemorate certain people or experiences in their lives. And for me, being on "MasterChef" and having won that season did change my life, and so I did want to commemorate it in some way. So for me, I got the three ingredients that I loved cooking with the most during my season, that was cilantro and anchovies, which represent fish sauce, and garlic. Those are like three of the ingredients I really do love and I used quite a bit throughout my season and it's kind of what I'm known for. So that's part of the upcoming episode for season 12, as well as when I do my guest appearance, I give everyone a mystery box that's full of ingredients that I love cooking with and they have to use all of them in the dish that they cook for the judges.

How to impress Hà if she's judging your food

Oh, yum! So, going off of that, can you give fans a bit more of a hint as to what tonight's episode will entail?

Yeah. So I'm coming back to do a guest appearance where it's like a winner's mystery box. So because I'm a previous winner of "MasterChef," I curate a mystery box for all of the contestants that are remaining. And so they get to find out on the spot, what sort of ingredients that I do put in this box, and then they have to use. The thing is that with a lot of mystery boxes, you pick and choose ingredients that you use from that box. But in this challenge, they're asked to use every ingredient included in the box. So they have to come up with a dish that touches upon every ingredient that I include.

After being an inspiration on "MasterChef," your success has continued with your two Houston restaurants and earning many accolades. How does it feel to be such a strong representative for the blind community?

It's really important to me, and it feels great to know that there's a bigger purpose beyond having one "MasterChef" and kind of the great opportunities and positive things that came out of that. But to be able to look at it, I think from a bigger perspective about the sort of positive impact that I'm able to have on a lot of people's lives, especially whether they're women or Asian American, or have vision impairment or have various abilities or disabilities, I think to be able to show them that with hard work and a positive attitude and a willingness to learn, you can get far in life in spite of whatever challenges one may come across in life. So for me, I think it is important to be that representation for that intersection of all the things that I am.

That's wonderful. And now that you've made appearances on "Top Chef" and "MasterChef," what criteria go through your head when judging these dishes?

Well, for me, I'm kind of in a special boat because I am visually impaired, so presentation of a dish is not as high on my list of criteria. But for me, it's about the taste of the dish coming together. Like, it has to be balanced, of course, in terms of flavor, texture, temperature. And is it something that is not too fussy. Because I'm visually impaired ... a good experience for me with food is not one where I have to worry about ending up with food in my lap or on my face, or am I making sure that I'm getting all parts of the dish in a bite or how the chef wants me to eat it. So all of these things, I think for me personally, fit together on how I judge a dish.

Hà offers tips for planning a dinner party

Yeah, that makes sense. And you are well known for having a refined palette. So I would love to know if you were having a dinner party for say, 10 people, what would you cook and why?

Ooh, that's a tough one. I think first, I would think about what season it is. So is it summer right now, where it's hot as heck in Houston? So I'd probably do a lot more cold dishes and lighter dishes. I would think, "What's my specialty?" So I do love cooking and I cook pretty well, a lot of Southeast Asian food. I'd probably do multi courses depending on just kind of what we're celebrating, if it's really casual or if it's kind of a more elevated sort of fine dining. I don't consider myself like a fine dining chef, but if it's something I'm trying to elevate, then the presentation and perhaps, things will be coursed out instead of done family style. It's really hard to say, but I do like doing different elements where I have a cold dish, probably a soup somewhere in there as well.

Usually for me, as an Asian person, I like following up a meal with soup. So usually soups would come last, whether it's a noodle soup or soup eaten over rice. And yeah, of course, something like light and sweet at the end and a few fun courses I think, thrown in there. So I know I didn't really list anything specific, but I curate all of these sorts of dinner parties and stuff really, to the audience. And it depends on the group of people coming together, what's the occasion, what's the season, and what I feel like cooking that day.

What season do you enjoy cooking best in: summer, winter, spring, fall?

I probably would say fall. Fall is my favorite season. I live in Houston, so that's finally when the weather starts calming down and when it's bearable to go outside. I love the holiday season. I love dressing for that season. And I love comfort food. And a lot of comfort food to me, in my head, are like soups and stews and things that are really heartwarming and hearty. So that's probably the season I love cooking for the most, is autumn.

Do you prefer baking or cooking more?

Oh, for sure cooking. Baking is a challenge when you are visually impaired. So everything has to always be exact measurements and you can't really see what's going on in the oven. So I much prefer cooking where I think it's more forgiving.

Hà names her favorite Vietnamese dishes

So you have two Vietnamese restaurants and in the finale of "MasterChef," you showcase some of your home recipes in your dishes. What is one Vietnamese dish recipe that you just cannot get enough of? 

I guess off the top of my head, I would have to say it is different renditions of the braised pork belly I did in the finale. That was my second course that I did for my season three finale. And it was a tribute to a humble dish that my mom cooked quite often while I was growing up. It uses cheap ingredients, not a lot of ingredients. It's fairly easy to cook. It's taking a cheap piece of meat like pork belly, or at least it wasn't expensive back when I was young, and just braising it for a long time and making it tender. And my mom used to make big batches of it and she would freeze it, because she was a working parent. And so that's how she would feed her family; oftentimes, she would have to cook things in large amounts and freeze them to save time.

And so it's a dish that I wanted to honor her in the finale and it's something that to this day, I can eat and be really comforted because it reminds me of childhood. And it's a dish that we've made different versions of for the restaurants. Sometimes, we'll run them as specials done in a different format, whether it's like on sticky rice or wrapped in a banana leaf or served even over Tteok, which is like Korean rice cakes or rice dumplings, kind of a fusion of different Asian cuisines. And then at one of my restaurants right now, we serve it a little bit more traditionally over rice, but we do it in a hot stone bowl Korean style, where the rice crisps up at the bottom, so that's kind of like another fusion of doing my favorite Vietnamese comfort dish with. I'm married to a Korean American, so I have a lot of influence from his side of the family and his mom and stuff. So you can see a lot of Korean influence in a lot of the dishes I do.

Head to Christine Hà's Instagram page to keep up with her latest projects. New episodes of "MasterChef: Back To Win" air Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET on FOX. 

This interview has been edited for clarity.